If you want an insight into the disproportionately high opinion artists have of themselves you need look no further than the Coen brothers’ latest indulgence.
After coming out of themselves for the sublime True Grit, the boys have reverted to their essentially contemptuous world view to tell the story of a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a down-at-heel folk-singer who has not quite made it in the bearded Greenwich Village scene of 1961.
Llewyn is a fellow of no redeeming qualities, but, as per their standard MO, the Coens’ lens is focused through his eyes, and they make him a victim of outrageous fortune adrift in a sea of crassness.
Joel and Ethan can’t help looking down on people and, as filmmakers of the highest order, their guile lies in inviting the audience up to their lofty vantage point from which to snigger at humanity – it is a smarmy conceit that works a treat at prizegiving galas.
Llewyn’s journey is book-ended by the bashing he receives in a laneway at the hands of a mysterious stranger.
After first witnessing this, we follow Llewyn as he inadvertently lets a ginger moggy out of some friends’ apartment. His cross-city trip with the cat is brilliantly conceived and captured, as are similarly contrived episodes. But it begins to feel repetitive, in the way that O Brother, Where Art Thou? did, without that pseudo-epic’s wit and warmth – indeed, it is as cold as the icy streets through which Llewyn trudges. Not that it’s without its highlights…
Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is mesmerising, Isaac is a fine singer, the Coens have always been good at creating a Twilight Zone creepiness, and the sight of a bloodstained bumper after Llewyn’s car has hit an animal is intensely moving.
But a walk-out by a nearby couple gave me unexpected solace. Having come full circle, Llewyn is re-united with the cat, whose name, we learn, is Ulysses – if oracular is your pose, you might as well go in ham-fisted.
~ John Campbell